Egyptomania: From Cleopatra to Hollywood

Dr. Bob Brier is currently Professor of Philosophy at the C.W. Post Campus of Long Island University in Brookville, NY, where he teaches Egyptology and philosophy. He is also the featured Egyptologist in a number of television specials, including one filmed by National Geographic Magazine following his collaborative effort with Ronald Wade, University of Maryland Medical School, during which they mummified a modern cadaver using ancient Egyptian methods. 

Egyptomania grew out of a fascination with ancient Egypt. Throughout history events have created waves of Egyptomania; some good, some pretty bad. For example, renderings of a fictitious Cleopatra have appeared for decades which have nothing Egyptian about them, save possibly a uraeus. On the other hand, when Hadrian’s lover Antinous drowned in the Nile, Hadrian had him portrayed sculpturally as not just an Egyptian, but as an Egyptian pharaoh, complete with nemes headdress and Egyptian kilt, and faithful to Egyptian sculptural standards.

The Greeks were actually the first Egyptomaniacs. They considered Egypt to be the source from which their vision of the civilized world had evolved.

Napoleon’s expedition into Egypt in May 1798 started the first of four major waves of Egyptomania. When the expedition began, Napoleon was just 29 years of age. He was a young general just back from Italy. The French parliament suggested that his next campaign should be against England. He was not about to take on England and wanted no part of that suggestion. Instead he proposed Egypt. He knew that if he could control Egypt he could control trade with India. He was also a great fan of Alexander the Great so was especially interested in the lands conquered by Alexander. 
Dr. Brier referred to Napoleon as a “culture vulture”! When he prepared for his invasion of Egypt he amassed not only troops, but recruited 155 savants – mathematicians, mineralogists, geologists, artists, architects, engineers and a number of students – graduate students have always been a good source of free labor, as Dr. Brier reminded us! Denon, a professional artist, was the only artist among the savants; the others were scientists and architects. The destination to which these men were headed was kept secret until just before they embarked. By the time he arrived in Egypt, Napoleon had gathered together 55,000 troops, in addition to his cadre of specialists who were tasked with learning all they could about the country and its monuments. Napoleon’s venture into Egypt was not only a military expedition, it was the first professional archaeological expedition to Egypt.

Enroute to Egypt, Napoleon went to the Vatican and picked up their Arabic type face so that he would be able to print material in Egypt in the language of the country. He was the first to print books in Egypt in Arabic.

Napoleon fought only two major battles in Egypt: the Battle of the Pyramids – which was not fought at the Pyramids at all, but at Imbaba in a melon patch; and the Battle of the Nile, which was not fought at the river, but inland some 10 kilometers.

He was fighting the Mamelukes, who had horses, pistols and a servant who ran behind to reload the pistols as they were expended. The Mamelukes were used to fighting one-on-one. The French army, on the other hand, set up in squares with the riflemen on the sides of the square, artillery [cannon] at the corners, and the mounted cavalry in the center, ready to charge after the riflemen fell back. When the Mamelukes charged, Napoleon held his fire until they were right upon his troops then virtually decimated them. The battle was over in less than an hour and the Mamelukes fled, never again a force to be reckoned with. 

Meanwhile, Lord Nelson, Commander of the British Navy, knew that Bonaparte had succeeded in routing the Mamelukes He was sent to search the Mediterranean for the French fleet. He sailed into Abuquir Bay and there was Napoleon’s fleet, anchored close to shore, with all his ships chained together and their cannon facing out to sea. The French admiral had them in so close to shore that nobody could sail between his fleet and the coastline, and none of his ships could break and run. When Nelson arrived, it was nearing nightfall. He did two things that were unheard of: he attacked immediately, even though it would soon be dark; and he sailed his fleet between the French ships and the shore though the water was dangerously shallow. By so doing, he was able to attack a nearly defenseless French fleet. Their cannon were all pointed seaward and could not be repositioned in time to repel the English attack. The fact that all the ships were tethered to each other meant they were unable to disperse and fight individually. Soon after dark, the powder magazine of the French flagship, the Laurent, blew up and the fleet was sunk.

Nelson, knowing that Bonaparte is finished, just sailed away. Napoleon was now isolated in Egypt. He could not move his troops, and he couldn’t re-supply them. So, what did he do? He creates an Archaeological Institute in Egypt, and he gave his institute members three questions to answer: 1) can they manufacture gunpowder in Egypt?, 2) can they bake better bread?, and 3) can they make better wine? For the next three years, the Institute works on these charges among others. 
During the first year after Nelson’s victory, Egypt was visited by plague and the French troops were rapidly depleted. Napoleon decided he should get back to France, so he prepared a letter to his troops and sneaked away. When Napoleon returns to France, he has several medals struck, glorifying his winning battles in Egypt. In them we see some of the first Egyptomania as in one he presented himself as Winged Victory, before the pyramids.

The savants stayed on in Egypt for several more years after Bonaparte’s departure,and produced the document we know as Description de l’Egypte. Interestingly, one of the painters working on the monument drawings, painted himself into almost every painting he made! Description de l’Egypte was produced in 2 editions. The second edition prints have an embossed seal in the upper right margin. Otherwise they are identical.

Prior to Napoleon’s expedition, renderings of Egypt were drawn purely from imagination for the most part. After he went to Egypt, Europe got an accurate picture of Egypt. The savants prepared the first authentic renderings of Egypt’s monuments, plants, birds, painted reliefs, etc, ever seen in Europe. Napoleon, did not, however, allow the publication of the map of Egypt along with the other information his experts prepared. He considered it to be strategic information and it was not published until after he died. The map is huge, taking up large-format 42 sheets of paper. 

In Britain, because Nelson had routed Bonaparte’s fleet, everything Egyptian became patriotic. In 1792 a Wedgwood sphinx figurine was produced on a plain stand with an undecorated plinth. After Napoleon’s defeat, the same sphinx had a row of hieroglyphs added to the plinth. They weren’t very authentic, however. Their source was a copies of an antiquity from the Turin Museum called the “Isis Table” which is, itself, a piece of Roman Egyptomania. At Appsley House in London, one can see today, the dinner service made for Napoleon by Wedgwood replete with Egyptian scenes taken directly from the illustrations made by members of his team of savants. Soon after Bonaparte artists like David Roberts went to Egypt and began documenting the monuments.

The second big wave of Egyptomania, came with the opening of the Suez Canal. In fact our Statue of Liberty was originally destined for the opening in 1866, but the Egyptian government ran out of money and couldn’t take delivery. The French then decided to give it to their friends, the Americans.
The third event that spurred a major Egyptomania wave was the movement of obelisks from Egypt to England, France and America in the 19th Century. The Egyptian government was broke according to Dr. Brier, so was giving away obelisks as good will gestures in hopes of getting financial aid. The first to be moved was an obelisk from Luxor Temple, which was transported to France. Champollion identified it as the one to request, as it was not cracked. The English elected to take one that was already on the ground at Alexandria, now called Cleopatra’s needle; it is in reality from the reign of Thutmosis III. The obelisk was loaded into a caisson, which was to be towed behind a British naval ship. During a storm in the Mediterranean the caisson broke free and was rescued several days later by a mariner who then ransomed it back to the British. The American obelisk had to be lowered to the ground then loaded aboard ship for transport. Cornelius Vanderbilt paid to have it shipped. The engineer he engaged to handle the shipment wanted to attach pontoons to the obelisk and float it to Alexandria harbor then load it aboard a ship. He figured out how to do that, but then he had to buy a ship to carry the monument back to the United States. After procuring a ship, he then had to hire a crew. The former crew of Yugoslavians was contracted to man the vessel, but the ship was unregistered. Rather than delay transport any longer he sailed away in an unregistered ship with a drunken crew, which was becalmed for three days in the Atlantic enroute to New York. Upon arriving he elected to avoid the tariffs required to dock at New York harbor and brought the ship in at Staten Island. By so doing, it meant that the obelisk would have to be transferred to Central Park across a considerable distance. The obelisk was moved at a rate of one city block per day on trestles provided by Vanderbilt’s railroads until it finally arrived at its destination and was erected.

Following the arrival of the obelisks, on both sides of the Atlantic, Egypt appeared on everything; in political cartoons, on cigarette boxes, tins for tobacco, cocoa tins, sheet music, and more. A product long connected with Egypt was Palmolive soap. Made from palm and olive oil, it was advertised with an Egyptian motif for 75 years. Today, one can purchase Palmolive soap in the eastern Mediterranean under the name of Cleopatra soap.

The fourth wave of Egyptomania was spurred by the opening of the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922. The original mummy movie, The Mummy, with Boris Karloff in the lead, was a spin-off from the finding of the Tut tomb, and according to Dr. Brier, it was, in fact, pretty authentic in its representations. The opening credits scroll over an actual copy of the Papyrus of Ani! It was soon followed by others, including, The Land of the Pharaohs with a young Joan Collins and the Elizabeth Taylor/Richard Burton Cleopatra, which Dr. Brier noted was costly to produce because of its attention to historical detail. In 1923, the first novel with an Egyptological bent appeared, The Eye of Osiris, by Frumier. It was also the first novel that suggested X-raying the mummies. Another novel based on Egypt that appeared about this same time is The Scarab Murder Case, by Van Dine. In addition, the Tutankhamun find spurred all sorts of Egyptologically based designs, not the least of which were fruit crate labels for Pyramid Apples, and King Tut Lemons, to name a few, and an array of comic books appeared with Egyptian themes.

What will usher in the next wave of Egyptomania?

— Nancy Corbin

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